We Cannot Ignore the Political Nature of Art, Research Time, 03/10/2013

One of my favourite short novels is By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño. It is a 90 page long deathbed confession of a priest who was a personal instructor to Augusto Pinochet, and worked for his military regime in many other capacities as an intellectual. The novella is a portrait of a man who has spent his entire life trying to exist in ignorance of the horrors that his church and his own actions endorse. He believes himself to be an artist and literary critic, existing in a realm that is separate from politics. He takes his ignorance to be innocence. He is, of course, an idiot.

The relation between art and politics has always been strange. Coming from the Western philosophical tradition, I’ve often heard Plato’s Republic quoted in this regard, his statement that poets encourage sentimentality and emotionality and must be banished from a city that is to run on pure reason. But this idea is so overdone, and further, completely inapplicable to our current society. The major forms for popular art today are cinema/television, music, and literature. I don’t see that many epic troubadours today. I don’t really see young artists today aspiring to be Homer, as much as they dream about artists whose work is a romanticized ideal for their own imperfect creations and imitations.

A young Ezra Pound glares at us with the
contempt born of confidence and pride.
But I said yesterday that I would write about Ezra Pound, the friend of T. S. Eliot and the other great artists of modernity who would embrace fascism in its strange Italian birthplace, where it was a blend of aesthetic perfection, the technological dream of the Futurist artists, nationalistic nostalgia for the empire of ancient Rome, and the thuggishness of Mussolini’s blackshirts. Fascism for Pound resulted in a beautiful government, the union of artistic creation and the governance of people. Politics was a venue for the raw energy of human life, and fascism was the only form of government that could shape that raw energy into something beautiful.

Here is what Pound teaches us. We can’t ignore the political dimensions of art, and perhaps also we can’t ignore the artistic dimensions of politics. I’m still hesitant about the latter, although the pleasant part of being at such an early stage of research on a complex project is that I’m allowed to be hesitant about conclusions. Pound supported fascism quite literally on this aesthetic platform, his conviction that fascism embodied the purest expression of a nation, a people moving as one. This doesn’t fit with the typical vision of how fascist governments have worked. As a child, I was taught that people naturally resisted fascism, and always had to be kept in line with street thugs and secret police. But studying the history of fascist republics, you realize that these were popular governments. My grandparents never supported Mussolini, but there were many Italians who did. Perhaps the idea of a nation moving as one appealed to people.

Pound had a complex neo-Platonic belief system about the world. Existence was the emanation of perfect essences, which a political movement could articulate or steer away from. The social unity of a people whose members enthusiastically embrace their fascist mobilization and militarization would best express the essence of their polity. Fascism is the concept of the body politic taken to its most extreme limit, and there is nothing more beautiful, especially for a social movement for whom ancient Rome and the Renaissance was such a touchstone for cultural nostalgia, than a body moving in perfect harmony.

Pound spent his last years living in a castle in
Italy. He died a reviled, hated man.
The aesthetic ideals of unity, symmetry, and perfect efficiency, translated into politics, creates fascism. Thankfully, there are artistic traditions of messiness, over-the-top comedy, and purposeful strangeness that better reflect the genuinely democratic character of creative humanity and creative art. I think Mel Brooks was onto something when he said the best weapon against a dictator was humour applied at the right time. The majesty of perfect unity will always distract us, and make us think that the best path lies that way. Plato rejected epic poetry from his city because their messy, emotional content and style were incompatible with his austere visions of a society that embodied the unity of reason. But perfect unity is also uniformity, the conformity to a single social movement that would have rejected the creativity of artists eventually, even Pound. 

Oddly enough, the young Pound was named in a 1914 letter Filippo Marinetti wrote in the UK press, co-authored by British Futurist C. R. W. Nevinson (Richard to his friends) as a leader of the artistic avant-garde, a figure whose work blasted the old traditions to create a new modern aesthetic vision of humanity. But Pound, along with named artists Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Jacob Epstein, ended up in a fistfight with Marinetti and Nevinson outside a Nevinson gallery exhibit opening, refusing to by lumped in with the Futurist vision of the world. Thirty years later, both old men would be friends in Venice, proud supporters of Mussolini. Time can heal wounds and restore friendships after all.

No comments:

Post a Comment